Saturday, July 16, 2011

More fun with Kanji

Just to remind - Kanji (漢字) are the Chinese characters that are used in Japanese. There are about 10,000 Kanji in use in Japanese, but the total that are part of the official school curriculum is more like 2,000 - this is what you need to really be proficient in reading a newspaper or other printed material. These characters are often described as ideographs or logograms - meaning that each character represents an idea (as opposed to a sound that can be read phonetically, and which has no intrinsic meaning on its own).

When I first studied Japanese, our teacher, in an attempt to lure us into some false sense of confidence, asked us to think of the kanji as pictures of the idea they represented. One example I saw again and again was a picture of a sun morphing flip book-style into 日

It is probably a bad idea to wonder too much why a dot appears in the middle...sun spot I guess.

This is all well and good at first. It doesn't take a massive leap of the imagination to see 一、二、三 as 1, 2, and 3. But why 六 should clearly be six or 忘 is somehow an obvious symbol for 'forget' begins to make that whole 'just a picture' idea start to seem somewhat of a stretch.


It begins to make a little more sense when you think of a complicated character as actually being made up of a number of smaller pieces. For example, the aforementioned 忘 which means 'forget'. I honestly don't know how I would represent the idea of 'forget' in a simple logogram. This is why you don't want me on your Pictionary team. I suppose I would do something like

(don't ask why there is baseball on TV in February)

Clearly this is not a viable option and open to interpretation. What one might see as forget, could be 'nagging' or 'frustration' or even 'evidence in divorce proceedings'.

However, in the case of the kanji, it begins to make a little more sense when you learn that 忘 is made of two smaller parts (called radicals). 心 on the bottom and 亡 up top. The first means 'heart', and the second means 'die' so to forget is actually 'to die in the heart' (Ok, ok, so you clearly need to remember those two small pieces which still don't really seem to look like what they are, but again, the heart has four parts - like the four chambers of you actual heart, and as for die...just remember that.) Another basic radical is 女 which means woman. It kind of looks like a woman making a curtsy, so not too hard to remember (the trick is to remember these smaller radical parts, and when you see a large nasty kanji, just remember it is nothing but a collection of these smaller pieces) so if 女 is woman 姦 (3 women) clearly means 'wicked', 'noisy', or 'mischief' and if 子 means child put woman and child together and you get 好 which means 'like' or even 'love' and the lady shows up again in 怒 which (if you were paying attention) has 'heart' again. The other new part is 'furthermore' So, woman + heart + furthermore = angry. Naturally.

Clearly kanji were developed before women's rights was big. Other combinations include:

'death' + 'woman' = reckless
'stand' + 'woman' = concubine
'old' + 'woman' = mother in law
'man' + 'woman' = loud talking
'limited to' + 'woman' = marriage

Not every character has women. For example there is 凧 which means kite. It is 'wind' + 'cloth'
草 means grass and it is made up of 'plant' and 'quick' or 'early'
Some seem strange now, such as 美 which means beautiful and is made of 'sheep' + 'big'. But I guess when your livelihood depended on sheep, a big one was a beautiful thing.

Insert you New Zealand or Scotland joke here.

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